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Artificial Hearts

, 376 pages

32 b&w illus., 9 color plates

January 2018



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Artificial Hearts

The Allure and Ambivalence of a Controversial Medical Technology

Artificial hearts are seductive devices. Their promissory nature as a cure for heart failure aligned neatly with the twentieth-century American medical community’s view of the body as an entity of replacement parts. In Artificial Hearts, Shelley McKellar traces the controversial history of this imperfect technology beginning in the 1950s and leading up to the present day.

McKellar profiles generations of researchers and devices as she traces the heart’s development and clinical use. She situates the events of Dr. Michael DeBakey and Dr. Denton Cooley’s professional fall-out after the first artificial heart implant case in 1969, as well as the 1982–83 Jarvik-7 heart implant case of Barney Clark, within a larger historical trajectory. She explores how some individuals—like former US Vice President Dick Cheney—affected the public profile of this technology by choosing to be implanted with artificial hearts. Finally, she explains the varied physical experiences, both negative and positive, of numerous artificial heart recipients.

McKellar argues that desirability—rather than the feasibility or practicality of artificial hearts—drove the invention of the device. Technical challenges and unsettling clinical experiences produced an ambivalence toward its continued development by many researchers, clinicians, politicians, bioethicists, and the public. But the potential and promise of the artificial heart offset this ambivalence, influencing how success was characterized and by whom. Packed with larger-than-life characters—from dedicated and ardent scientists to feuding Texas surgeons and brave patients—this book is a fascinating case study that speaks to questions of expectations, limitations, and uncertainty in a high-technology medical world.

Shelley McKellar is the Jason A. Hannah Professor in the History of Medicine at the University of Western Ontario. She is the author of Surgical Limits: The Life of Gordon Murray and the coauthor of Medicine and Technology in Canada, 1900–1950.

"A definitive history of the artificial heart, full of fascinating stories of innovations, setbacks, and the patients and surgeons who made progress possible, McKellar's original book will become a standard part of seminars in the history of medicine."

"Artificial Hearts recounts the factual history of mechanical heart replacement, but is really a story of outrageous ideas and intrepid investigators, devices and dreamers, skilled doctors and courageous patients. McKellar is uniquely qualified to archive this history; a perceptive historian who was the ASAIO history scholar, knew the pioneers, and lives in the artificial organs community. She brings the science, the surgeons, and the remarkable story to life as if we were there."

"McKellar presents a compelling history of the development of artificial hearts from the 1950s to the present. Her account underscores the tension between the public's infatuation with and wariness of a controversial technology... McKellar’s engaging, thoroughly documented historical account will appeal to general readers, students, and academic professionals."

"Shelley McKellar, a historian of medicine at the University of Western Ontario, offers a detailed study of social, cultural, and economic forces that propelled a series of "seductive devices": artificial hearts that fell short of expectations."

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